Guest Column: Reshaping public schools: A parable for our times

This is a story about a troubled town. Its mayor was unhappy with the city’s fire department. “Fires are not being handled effectively and homeowners are losing too much property,” the mayor said. He believed the firefighting system needed to be reformed.

The mayor had a plan. He created a neighborhood committee of citizens for fighting fires. Fire brigades were organized around specialties, for example, citizens who owned ladders, fought fires in tall buildings. Neighbors who owned garden hoses, formed special units for fighting brush fires. Senior citizens who owned buckets were assigned to watch for cigarette smokers. “Water is water,” said the mayor. “Anyone can fight a fire,” he told the townspeople.

At first, fire fighting appeared to improve in the town. Part-time and volunteer fire fighters cost less than the old full-time professional system. But some volunteers lost interest in the new system. They stopped showing up for fires. Other citizens were not professionally trained or experienced, and many accidents happened. Some fatalities occurred. Veteran firefighters from the old system were alarmed by the situation, and so were many residents in the town. They called for the mayor to be removed.

A new mayor was elected. This mayor hired more full-time firefighters and gave them more training. It wasn’t long before the old fire fighting system was functioning again. The town was relieved.

If this parable reminds you of Illinois’ battle over charter schools, it is no accident. Many parents, students, teachers and government officials are struggling with the notion of “re-engineering” their public schools. It seems that nearly anyone with a bright idea and a storefront can open a school these days. Is this wise?

The Wisconsin Experience

Consider Milwaukee’s love affair with school vouchers. Fifteen years ago, the city was one of the first in America to offer tax – supported vouchers for parents to “shop” for their favorite school. Vouchers could be spent at public, private and religious schools. In 2005, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper took a look at 50 of the new schools in the city where vouchers were applied. Many of the voucher schools were plagued by inadequate facilities and unqualified teachers, according to the newspaper as reported in Rethinking Schools magazine (September 2005). The “Milwaukee Miracle” has shown meager results.

Strange bedfellows

The separation of church and state in America is a noble tradition as old as our Bill of Rights. But this year, the City of Chicago is rolling back history by chartering several Roman Catholic grade schools. In the past, parochial schools have received public funds for textbooks or buses, but now the Chicago Board of Education is paying for teacher salaries and facilities, too. Although the new Christian schools are expected to follow “CPS guidelines,” they are NOT required to provide special classes for new immigrants or children with learning disabilities. Free from these burdens that Chicago public schools must shoulder, is it any wonder the new religious charter schools give off an aura of success?

With the advent of publicly-supported religious schools, a new dilemma exists over the school calendar. Will the new Catholic charter school also honor Veterans’ Day, Pulaski Day, and Columbus Day, or will Chicago simply add All Saints Day to the citywide school calendar?

Now that Mayor Richard Daley has opened the door to public funding for a Catholic charter school, won’t Jewish, Protestant, Muslim and other faith groups be asking for equal funding and facilities? How can they be denied? It’s “open season” on the public schools in Illinois. Zealous reformers threaten to strip the carcass and leave our cities the bones.

Peter N. Pero holds a masters degree in Education from the University of Illinois, Chicago and teaches in the Chicago Public Schools.

from the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2007, issue

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